The Centre on Friday told the Supreme Court it has withdrawn its notification proposing a social media hub, which some had alleged could become a tool to monitor online activities of citizens.
Top I&B ministry officials had re-examined the ministry’s proposal to create a social media hub for monitoring online data and studied its clauses carefully to understand if the project was really necessary and if it violated privacy, before deciding it to withdraw it in the second week of July. This is as per a report in the Economic Times.
Officials said it was in line with what I&B minister Rajyavardhan Rathore had said in the floor of the parliament on July 19 that the government had no proposal to invade an individual’s “privacy or freedom of speech with its social
It is believed that Bihar cadre officer Amit Khare who joined the I&B ministry as a secretary in May had asked his subordinates certain tough questions on how the ‘Request for Proposal’ had certain clauses that could be seen as privacy violations. It was soon after he joined that he had asked a group of officials to explain why such a hub was being planned in the first place and what was the plan of action to execute something that would need significant resources.
“When he was told that it was to gather people’s perception, collate data, he had several questions on what we will do with the feedback or sentiment analysis reports, and if we are anyway doing anything with the feedback that we are getting from the electronic media monitoring centre and other platforms now. Gradually over meetings, more doubts emerged,” an official said.
The Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited (BECIL), a Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) under the Ministry, had floated a tender to supply a software for the project in May. According to official sources, five applications had been received by BECIL in the early weeks after the tender was made public.
BECIL put out a withdrawal notice on its website on Friday saying the proposal for selection of agencies for software and service and support for function, operation and maintenance of Social Media Communication Hub, was cancelled and withdrawn with immediate effect.
The confusion over the proposal also arose because before framing it in April, some ministry officials felt they needed a software that would do “360 degree monitoring” on all social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Twitter and Instagram, but only of information available on the public domain. But while framing the proposal, “tracking email content” got added to the proposal, an official said, adding that while it is not clear how that got added. “But it is certain that this is what created the controversy because it amounted to hacking that is not permissible. This was not the intent either,” the official added.
“Everyday several reports are prepared across the country on government events, reactions, success stories, updates which some of us thought could be better processed by the centre if it was all put in a single mail or categorised emails which could be automated. But it was agreed upon in subsequent meetings that the proposal needed much better drafting,” an official said.
Besides making the operation of over 700 social media units across the country effective in processing digital content, the ministry was looking for a software that could be operated centrally to club information available on the public domain from different social media platforms – something that it used to with an Oracle software.
The license of the software, according to officials, was coming to an end, and hence the ministry officials then felt the need for a new tender and a more effective software. It is believed that the ministry had then used the trial products of some analytics software companies such as Topwalker and meltwater to understand how to improve its feedback mechanism.
That proposal however got combined in the social media hub one which has now been withdrawn. It is not clear if the ministry or BECIL will take out another RFP for the same.
The withdrawn tool, according to the proposal, was not only to help the government to understand the impact of various social media campaigns but also provide automated reports, tactical insights and comprehensive work-flows to initiate engagement across digital channels. The government had planned to make this hub available in English, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam and Punjabi.